BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – After his first few laps around Barber Motorsports Park in 2009, Scott Dixon wasn’t sure the circuit would work as a Verizon IndyCar Series race venue.
Eight years later – and despite seven frustrating finishes – he loves the place.
“We all came here at that first test and thought, ‘This is going to be a horrible race. It’s going to be follow the leader. You won’t be able to pass,’” Dixon said. “But it’s turned out to be one of the best races we have. It’s action-packed. You have big tire degradation here and I think that’s what makes it interesting. Even if you start in the back, you can play with the strategy enough to make it work.”
The 17-turn, 2.3-mile road course located in the wooded countryside on the east side of Birmingham originally was designed with motorcycles in mind. When the Verizon IndyCar Series tested at the facility in 2009, most drivers agreed with the driver of the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 9 Honda: too narrow, too tight, too few opportunities to pass.
But as the series prepares for its eighth race at Barber this weekend, drivers have changed their opinions about the track. Instead of being wary of it, they’ve embraced it. So, too, have fans, who will fill the hills surrounding the track Sunday for the Honda IndyCar Grand Prix of Alabama presented by America’s First.
“It’s such a beautiful place here,” said Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud, whose run to the 2016 series championship was buoyed by a victory at Barber. “I like to call it a racing amusement park. It’s quite incredible what they’ve been able to do with this place, and the layout is a lot of fun for us in Indy cars. We carry so much speed through the corners. It’s also a place we test a lot, so we come back and the cars are pretty dialed in, so it's a lot of fun.”
What once was thought to make for dull racing – tight turns separating long straightaways – instead created variety, technical challenges and entertaining racing.
“You have to get this combination of braking late enough, carrying the speed through the corner and then getting off the corner well enough,” said Graham Rahal of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, who has finished second the previous two years at Barber. “There are so many different ways to skin a cat here.”
As much as Dixon likes Barber, the track hasn’t returned the sentiment. He finished second in the first four visits to the circuit, finished third in 2014 and 2015, then finished 10th last year after an early crash. It’s one of just six current INDYCAR venues at which Dixon – who ranks fourth all-time with 40 victories -- hasn’t won.
Still, Dixon and other drivers enjoy the races and frequent test sessions at Barber.
“It’s a really fun place to race,” Dixon said. “It’s a fun place to test just because of the track layout and elevation changes and the corners. It’s a beautiful facility. I would love to win here.”
So would 20 other drivers entered this weekend. In just eight years, Barber has gone from a course that drew skepticism to a race they all covet. Part of the motivation is that it’s a true test of all-around skill.
“It’s always how you do it and what you’re driving style is,” Rahal said. “My driving style doesn’t always fit this circuit. I’m more an attack in sort of guy, and here it’s more focusing on exits. It takes me a little adjusting around here, but you have to hustle it. And it’s not always pretty, that’s for sure.”